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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

The Organic Farm Plan

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist
University of Vermont Extension

The Final Rule of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is the legal standard for organic food production in the United States.  This rule requires that every certified organic farm have an “organic production plan,” sometimes called an “organic farm systems management plan” or simply, an “organic plan.”

In plain terms, an organic plan describes how the farm has been, and will be, managed. The plan is put together by the farmer and must be approved by the organic certifying agency that the farmer selects.

Besides fulfilling a requirement for organic certification, the organic plan can be a very helpful tool for farm management. Writing it forces the farmer to collect, compile, and think about a wide range of production and stewardship information. Of course, the plan also helps the certifier figure out if the farm is in compliance with federal regulations.

According to section 205.201 of the organic rule, an organic plan must contain:

  • A description of practices and procedures to be performed and maintained, including the frequency with which they will be performed;
  • A list of each substance to be used as a production or handling input, indicating its composition, source, location(s) where it will be used, and documentation of commercial availability, as applicable;
  • A description of the monitoring practices and procedures to be performed and maintained, including the frequency with which they will be performed, to verify that the plan is effectively implemented;
  • A description of the record keeping system implemented to comply with the certification requirements
  • A description of the management practices and physical barriers established to prevent commingling (physical contact or mixing) of organic and non-organic products on a “split” operation (those that produce both organic and conventional products) and to prevent contact of organic production and handling operations and products with prohibited substances; and
  • Additional information deemed necessary by the certifying agent to evaluate compliance with the regulations.

As everyone knows, things don’t always go according to plan.  So the organic plan is just that  - a plan, not necessarily a promise. Circumstances may call for changes in the plan. If that happens, it’s critical that a farmer check with their certifier  - before, not after, implementing a change - to be sure that the operation will still be in compliance. Organic farm plans are required to be updated every year anyway, to reflect any changes in management.

Some growers have good record keeping systems, and are comfortable putting together written plans from year to year as means of organizing their resources and managing production, markets, and money. For others, farm planning is done in a little black notebook, on the back of an envelope, or entirely in their heads. Most growers are already using past seed and fertilizer orders, pest control records, sales receipts, and payroll records, etc. to decide what to do in the coming year. If planning has been mostly a ‘seat of the pants’ affair for you, then putting your records and recollections together into a comprehensive farm plan may seem pretty daunting. It’s a good thing there are some easy-to-use tools to help with the process.

In some cases, the application documents and questionnaires provided by certifying agencies capture most of the information that’s required, so these forms, along with the farm’s regular records, become the organic plan.

There are also some generic forms that can help you put together an well-organized organic plan.  An excellent example is available on the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) web site: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=359.

This is a very useful document for producers who are developing an organic plan for the first time. It can help you compile the required information about production methods and inputs used on your farm. At the end is a field history sheet that can be completed for as many fields as you are certifying. The information about past management practice in various fields is an essential part of the organic plan.

The forms on the ATTRA web site are in the public domain and may be printed and copied as needed. Downloading them and filling them out on your computer has the advantage of letting you modify the form and add or remove sections to fit your farm.

If you are considering organic certification – or even if you aren’t – developing a comprehensive farm management plan may help you find ways to improve your production efficiency and stewardship of natural resources. Such a plan may also help with other applications such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s cost share programs.

To read the entire organic rule or to get explanations of what it means and how to implement it, visit the NOP website at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/.

Published: October 2004
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